The government seeks public input on the question of electoral reform. We should all participate.
Thirteen million Canadian households will soon receive a government questionnaire asking for views on electoral reform. (Chris Young / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
“He tabled a bill giving full control of the franchise to the federal government. The bill led to an unprecedented debate in the House of Commons…the result was an extremely complex Elections Act that instead of producing a uniform Canadian electorate, diversified the electorate even more.” – from Elections Canada’s A History of the Vote in Canada
As the House of Commons special committee on electoral reform prepares to release its findings next week, after exhaustive tours and hearings in every part of Canada, it is worthwhile to pause and reflect on our past, often acrimonious debates on our system of voting.
In the above quote, the “he” refers to Sir John A. Macdonald, our first prime minister. Embroiled in a furious federal-provincial showdown which continued for years, jurisdiction over the voting process seesawed back and forth resulting in uneven patterns of voting eligibility in different provinces.
There were some basic criteria: age (over 21), gender (male) and level of income or property ownership. Discrimination based on race, gender, religion or income level was a constant. Sadly, exclusion rather than inclusion was a pattern, perhaps an early warning signal of voter suppression.
Our modern right to vote eventually expanded to every citizen of Canada and is today enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But while the size and scope of the vote has expanded, our voting model, the first past the post (FPTP) system we imported from Great Britain, has remained the same for nearly 150 years.
So is it time for a change? What would we hope to improve with any electoral reform? And what, if anything, is the problem with FPTP?
Far from suppressing the right to votes, we want to encourage voting. The government has already signalled its intention to restore the vote to ex-pat Canadians who have lived abroad for more than five years.
But looming challenges remain.
A perceived “democratic deficit,” the gap between the popular vote and the method in which the government is formed, has propelled Fair Vote Canada, an organization that advocates for proportional representation (PR) rather than FPTP, to question the fairness of a system which can award 56 per cent of the seats to a party who gains only 39 per cent of the vote, as with the Liberals in the last election.
Rather than a “winner take all” approach, they argue that surely the share of a party’s representation should be proportional to its share of the votes. Every vote would then count and smaller parties would have a better chance of parliamentary representation.
Their strongest argument is the perception that votes are wasted. To increase turnout, voters must feel their votes matter. In light of the Brexit vote in Britain and the Trump election in the U.S., we would do well to heed this concern. Ignoring those voices could lead to future problems.
On the other hand, proponents of FPTP maintain that the system has produced strong and mostly stable governments. The process itself is simple and easy to understand. Most importantly, those supporting the status quo worry that the danger of a vote threshold for representation (say 5 per cent) could allow a party with extremist views, or a single issue interest group based on policy or religion, the opportunity to sit in Parliament.
These are strong and valid concerns, going right to the heart of our democracy. Should they be put to a referendum vote, one in which we can all take part?
Canadians know the perils of calling a referendum. We know the polarizing nature of a national debate. We know that complex matters will have to be reduced to a simple question. We know that it is expensive. Canada’s current Chief Electoral Officer says the cost would be approximately $300 million.
Is it all decided? No, we are only halfway through this story and it is not too late for Canadians to speak up.
Thirteen million Canadian households will soon receive a government questionnaire asking for views on electoral reform. Donna Dasko, a pollster at the University of Toronto, notes a potential limitation of this great experiment: “like any opt-in survey, it will attract those Canadians who are interested in electoral reform, and those people who tend to want system change. We may not learn the view of the ‘silent majority’ from this exercise.”
Don’t be part of the “silent majority.” It is too important. Fill in the questionnaire. It is your voice, your vote and especially your right.
– Penny Collenette is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa and was a senior director of the Prime Minister’s Office for Jean Chrétien